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Lesson Explainer: Skepticism Philosophy

In this explainer, we will learn how to explain skepticism as a philosophical thinking skill.

Philosophy starts with asking questions, such as “Are things really as they seem?” and “What do we know?”

Skepticism is the refusal to take what we believe for granted. Philosophical thinking requires us to investigate the reasons for our beliefs and to give up those beliefs if we cannot find good enough reasons to support them.

lady is unsure what to do
Figure 1: A woman looking skeptical. The expression on this woman’s face may suggest that she is unwilling to believe what she has just been told. Perhaps the reasons she has been offered have not been strong enough to compel her to believe it.

Example 1: Reasons

What should we do when we cannot find good enough reasons to support our beliefs?

  1. We should give them up.
  2. We should ignore reasons against them.
  3. We should insist that they are true.
  4. We should pretend that it does not matter.
  5. We should indiscriminately attack any opposing reasons.

Answer

Philosophical thinking involves believing what is supported by reasons. This requires us to find reasons to support our beliefs and even to give up those beliefs when we cannot find good enough reasons to support them.

When we insist that our beliefs are true even when they are not supported by reasons or pretend that it does not matter that they are not supported, we are no longer thinking rationally.

Instead, we are selectively choosing to ignore reasons against them or to ignore the lack of rational support for them.

We are also being irrational if we ignore or indiscriminately attack any reasons against them.

The correct answer is A.

There are two types of skepticism that philosophers are interested in: absolute skepticism and methodological skepticism.

Absolute skepticism is a philosophical position, meaning that it is a belief that people hold and defend with arguments. It consists of the belief that we do not know anything at all.

Key Term: Philosophical Position

A philosophical position is a belief that someone holds and defends with arguments.

Key Term: Absolute Skepticism

Absolute skepticism is the belief that we do not know anything.

Very few philosophers in history have subscribed to skepticism of this sort. Instead, most philosophers defend the belief that we can have knowledge.

Methodological skepticism is a tool philosophers use with the aim of attaining knowledge and overcoming absolute skepticism.

Philosophers use doubt strategically to make sure that everything they claim to know is absolutely certain.

Key Term: Methodological Skepticism

Methodological skepticism is the strategic use of doubt to make sure that everything we claim to know is absolutely certain.

The father of modern philosophy, René Descartes, used skepticism to get rid of uncertain beliefs and establish philosophy on a more secure foundation. He argued that before we can make any claim, we must explain how we know with absolute certainty that it is true.

Key Figure: René Descartes

René Descartes is considered the father of modern philosophy because he argued that before we can make any claim, we must explain how we know with absolute certainty that it is true.

Rene Descartes
Figure 2: A painting of the philosopher René Descartes. Descartes is considered the father of modern philosophy because of his methodological skepticism.

Example 2: Descartes and Absolute Certainty

Why did Descartes claim that it is important to ensure that none of our beliefs are faulty?

  1. Because our beliefs depend on one another
  2. Because Descartes hated being wrong
  3. Because it makes people take us less seriously
  4. Because being wrong is a bad habit to get into
  5. He did not; Descartes believed that it is OK to have some faulty beliefs.

Answer

Descartes did claim that it is important to ensure that none of our beliefs are faulty.

Some of the possible answers may be reasons to ensure that none of our beliefs are faulty, but they are not concerned with the aim that motivated Descartes. Descartes was only concerned with ensuring that all of our beliefs are supported by reasons and that they are all absolutely certain.

One person may hate being wrong, and another person may tolerate being wrong. The way individual people feel about being wrong does not tell us whether it is necessary to ensure that none of our beliefs are faulty.

Similarly, having faulty beliefs may make people take us less seriously, but it may not be as bad as other alternatives.

It may be true that being wrong is a bad habit and should be avoided for that reason. However, this was not the reason that Descartes claimed that we have to avoid faulty beliefs.

According to Descartes, the reason that we have to ensure that none of our beliefs are faulty is that our beliefs depend on one another. If one of our beliefs is faulty, beliefs that depend on the truth of that belief will also be faulty.

The correct answer is A.

Descartes used an analogy to make his case. Suppose you have a barrel of apples. You ought to make sure that none of your apples are rotten because rot spreads.

Beliefs are the same: unless you are sure that none of your beliefs are faulty, you cannot depend on any of them. That is because our beliefs depend on one another.

For example, if you believe that there is a tree outside your window, it is probably because you can look out your window and see a tree and also because you believe that seeing something is a good reason to believe it exists.

If you are not certain that seeing something gives you good evidence to believe it exists, then you also cannot be certain that there is a tree outside your window.

The interdependence of our beliefs is the reason that Descartes advocated methodological scepticism. To prevent rot from spreading, you need to empty the entire barrel of apples onto the ground and only put back the ones that are free from rot. Similarly, Descartes argued that we need to be skeptical of all of our beliefs until we can be absolutely sure that each one is true.

Example 3: Methodological Skepticism

There is a difference between methodological skepticism and absolute skepticism. Which of the following defines methodological skepticism?

  1. Submitting prior beliefs to doubt to determine what can be known with certainty
  2. The belief that we do not know anything
  3. Demanding that other people justify their beliefs
  4. Denying the existence of God

Answer

Each of the answers describes some variety of skepticism.

To deny the possibility of any knowledge at all is to subscribe to the position of absolute skepticism.

To demand that other people justify their beliefs is to apply skepticism to the beliefs of others, regardless of whether skepticism is systematically applied to one’s own beliefs as well.

To deny the existence of God is a particular form of skepticism that is limited to skepticism toward belief in God.

To submit prior beliefs to doubt to determine what can be known with certainty is to use doubt as a method for ensuring that all of the beliefs you hold are true. The correct answer is A.

Let’s summarize some of the key points we have covered in this explainer.

Key Points

  • Skepticism is the refusal to take what we believe for granted. It can be distinguished into two different kinds: absolute skepticism and methodological skepticism.
  • Absolute skepticism is a philosophical position that consists of the belief that we do not know anything at all.
  • Methodological skepticism is the strategic use of doubt to make sure that everything we claim to know is absolutely certain.

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